There seems to be an unbreakable mask hovering in front of nineteenth century ballet dancers. Although the movements have the definition of beauty written all over the dancers’ bodies, a flow of energy stops and distracts the audience from the piece of art. By the end of the next century, an Israeli artist was able to exceed expectations for all who watch his choreography and all who experience his classes. Contrary to the façade of classical ballet, Ohad Naharin’s technique and choreographic language asks dancers to reveal the truth when discovering their pain, demonstrating a connection to pleasure and healing. In return, he initiates movement from their reactions, rather than demanding for an unnatural instinct to be danced. This relationship between Naharin and the dancers at Batsheva Dance Company transfers onto the stage, leaving audiences to be completely entranced by the execution.
Naharin explicates his dancing as a movement language by the name of “Gaga”. When Naharin was on the path to retiring from professional dancing, he endured a serious back injury, causing numbness in his legs and pelvis. This led him to further understand how to move in a healthy way and to ask why he put himself through the physical toll of dance for so many years. In her in-depth article about the structure of Gaga, Deborah Freides Galili refers to the Gaga-guru himself for the answer:
“The deconstructive component of Gaga reflects Naharin’s response to his physical injuries. ‘I really needed to dance both to heal and as a source for body pleasure, to compensate for the pain that my body gave me,’ he explained, ‘and to be able to overcome the injury by becoming more efficient, more coordinated, more clever, so I can bypass the injury and still do more with less’” (Galili 381).
The language of Gaga is meant for all body types, of any age and at any level of fitness, so it can truly teach the proper alignment to any person. Professionals at the Batsheva Dance Company train profusely in Naharin’s pedagogy, taking more Gaga classes than ballet each week (Heymann, 2007). With its focus on imagery, stamina and isolation, Gaga guides movers towards a deep awareness of the body and widens the physical kinesphere past the arms and legs (Galili 377). As Naharin continues to develop his language, he refines the way it heals human flesh and how it combines voluntary movement with involuntary movement.
In an odd way, Naharin finds himself falling in love with the dancers he works with, due to the emotional journey they go through. Their movements excite him, and it brings out the best results on stage when he taps into their life. In rehearsals, the dancers work endlessly on one simple movement as Naharin critiques. They often repeat it over and over until Naharin can sense the exact quality he wants of his dancers (Hot Docs Cinema, 4). If the choreography is stale and lacking of any truth, Naharin reminds them to touch upon their daily lives, including sexual adventures and eating delicious food (Heymann, 2007). From there, the dancers, though in an emotional state of chaos, can finally indulge in the feeling of the movements. They send artistic energy to Naharin, and the process continues. Many choreographers, specifically in ballet, plan ahead of time how the dance will progress, and how the dancers are going to move. This concept is very productive because the fear of failure can be overlooked. It is safe. Now, not only does Naharin play rough, but when a new batch of dancers are casted, he reframes his creations differently so that the work stays fresh. He dares to mix up the playing field that he once established, for the sake of his philosophy. The brand-new cast of humans have brand-new emotions, sex drives, or favourite books that they will speak about to the audience through their movements. For example, his widely-praised Deca Dance (first premiering in 2000), has suffered many reconfigurations:
“[Naharin] explained, ‘Deca Dance is something I have been playing with for some time. It’s a modular piece that keeps changing. I can reconstruct my work and create something coherent from the broken pieces, that gives me, the dancers, and the audience pleasure’… Certain segments— most notably a whimsical section in which the performers pull audience members up onstage to dance and a building, powerful movement accumulation to the Passover song ‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (‘Who Knows One’)— are present in almost every rendition. Yet at its core, Deca Dance is a fluid work in a perpetual state of evolution” (Bales 82).
Moreover, Naharin is always in constant evolution of his masterpieces because he realizes that his life is never static. The audience can appreciate this type of process, especially when they get to watch other audience members onstage, becoming part of a communal dance. Naharin is using his dancers, and in this case, his audience for inspiration, making sure to connect to the truth of humanity. The essence of the piece is never destroyed when different dancers are set to perform his choreography. He revisits the past while keeping the origin of the piece still alive. Likewise, he works with other companies, such as Hubbard Street Chicago (Nagel 93), and the creative process begins anew where he, again, falls head over heels for the various dancers.
As the prima ballerina exhibits beauty in her tutu, Naharin’s choreography is akin to the quality of ugliness and pain. Stripping down to pedestrian-style costumes, his dancers are praised by Naharin for diving full-force into a movement, even if it causes them to hurt their bodies. The dances in Batsheva’s performance repertoire delve into controversial subjects such as the vileness of war and death (Heymann, 2015), leaving no trace of hesitation from Naharin himself. Unbelievably, what helps the dancers accomplish these tasks every time they perform is their ability to connect to a pleasuring experience in the pain. The most extreme body contortions are enjoyable to the dancers, with Naharin’s specific instructions at bay (Galili 383). Dancing is a popular form of muscle injury, but he encourages them to “enjoy the burning sensation” (Naharin). They challenge the limits of their own sensitivities by questioning what their threshold of pain really is. Whether the task is to cause an internal earthquake in the body or to plunge into a frenzy of madness (Erwin 7), Naharin welcomes the dangerous risks of his movements as a way to display despair on the theatre stage. In addition to this, a solid background of technique is required to achieve Naharin’s choreography, which is danced effortlessly by his stunning performers (Stahl).
Taking from many dance styles, including the ever more structured ballet, Naharin transforms movement into a feeling of complete availability. One particular exercise that is utilized in his performances and taught in his classes is “Groove”. It is described by his students “as a highly pleasurable and communicative way to transmit the flow of energy through the body and channel it to others” (Gittings 14). Indeed, when attending a performance by Batsheva Dance Company, there is an atmosphere of total conversation between the audience and the dancers. The textures that Groove express link together the social aspect of street dancing and the concept of surrendering to the music’s rhythm. It is a repetitive bounce inside a dancer’s body that, at times, can result in the dancer hurting their knees or pelvis (Heymann, 2015). However, when the dancer commits all of their body parts to the beat of a song, the audience feels a sense of ease and delight. Likewise, the dancer has no choice but to lose control to the lure of Groove. Naharin chose this tool to mesh together the two most poignant emotions of a person’s life: “If you tap into pain and pleasure at the same time, you open up a huge range of feelings in between… Life can contain both of these concepts” (Heymann, 2007). Thus, the pain and pleasure of Naharin’s choreography encompasses the community of dance as a global activity. Grooving to a piece of music is universally known as an addictive release of energy while spending time with friends and family, and it branches out to every audience member who watches a Batsheva performance. Naharin incorporates this catharsis in his dance methodology for the benefits it comes with, and the audience does not hold back its desire to be a part of it.
To present a theatrical art form to an audience of emotional people, it is not enough to simply move. While the 19th century deemed a classical ballerina as its shining star, Naharin tenaciously brings the house down in the late 20th and early 21st centuries without looking to please the eye. His dancers strive to channel their dynamism out to the audience, and Naharin intuitively channels the human condition. Digging into the raw bliss of being in pain is one of Naharin’s greatest skills as an Israeli choreographer and teacher… but his genius does not stop there.
Bales, Melanie, and Karen Eliot. Dance on its Own Terms: Histories and Methodologies. Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Erwin, Laura. “A Personal Journey into Ohad Naharin’s Gaga Technique: Discovering Pedagogical Applications for Engaging the Performer.” Journal of Emerging Dance Scholarship (2014): 1-24. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. http://www.docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=http://www.jedsonline.net/wpcontent/uploads/2014/06/Laura-Erwin-JEDS-Manuscript-final-edits-2-LC-LE-6-20.docx
Galili, Deborah Friedes. “Gaga: Moving Beyond Technique with Ohad Naharin in the Twenty-First Century.” Dance Chronicle 38.3 (2015): 360-392. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. http://www.journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/01472526/v38i0003/360_gmbtwonittc.xml
Gittings, Diane J. “Building Bodies with a Soft Spine. Gaga: Ohad Naharin’s invention in practice, its roots in Feldenkrais and the vision of a pedagogy”. Academia, uploaded by Diane J Gittings. Sept. 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. http://www.academia.edu/6458350/Building_ Bodies_with_a_Soft_Spine._Gaga_Ohad_Naharins_invention_in_practice_its_roots_in_Feldenkrais_and_the_vision_of_a_pedagogy
Heymann, Tomer, director. Out of Focus. Heymann Brothers Films, 2007. Vimeo, uploaded by Ohad Naharin, http://www.vimeopro.com/user11134273/ohad-naharin/video/139978582
Heymann, Tomer, director. Mr. Gaga. Heymann Brothers Films, 2015.
Hot Docs Cinema, Review of Mr. Gaga, directed by Tomer Heymann, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, April 2017, p. 4.
Nadel, Myron H., and Marc Strauss. The Dance Experience: Insights into History, Culture, and Creativity. Princeton Book Co, 2003. Print. Naharin, Ohad. “About Gaga”. Gaga people.dancers. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.gagapeople.com/english/about-gaga/
Stahl, Jennifer, editor. “Going Gaga”. Dance Magazine. 19 Mar. 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.dancespirit.com/how-to/modern/going_gaga/